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Once the struggle for Spanish-American independence was triumphant, Simón Bolívar crafted a series of liberal legislative decrees for Peru and Charcas designed to abolish colonial forms of oppression. The vast indigenous majorities would no longer be subject to tribute, the mita, or personal services for state, ecclesiastical, and indigenous authorities; slaves would be freed; and equality among all citizens was declared.

Bolívar proclaimed in January 1826 that his proposed scheme for the nascent republic that carried his name was “the most liberal constitution in the world.” In his address to the Bolivian constituent congress in May 1826, Bolívar drew on a range of classical and contemporary constitutional models for a system of checks and balances that would assure political stability. Yet at the time, and ever since, the constitution has generated controversy especially because of its illiberal proposal for a lifetime presidency. In the later years of his life, Bolívar had grown increasingly skeptical of democracy, believing it to be a political system unsuited for Spanish Americans after centuries of monarchical rule. The devolution of power to the people or to a federation of states risked anarchy, he believed, and hence a prominent central authority was needed.

Despite the theoretical commitment to equality before the law, and consistent with Bolívar’s own wariness about popular political participation, the new republic’s constitution clearly differentiated between Bolivians and citizens. The former would include Indians, but the latter category effectively excluded most of them since citizens were required to be literate and have a trade or profession. The Bolivian constituent congress approved Bolívar’s design in July 1826. Two liberal propositions that it did not adopt, however, were the outright emancipation of slaves and the secular character of the state. While Bolívar’s model lasted only five years and subsequent constitutions eliminated the lifetime presidency, the central authority of executive power actually increased in the nineteenth century.

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